Was Scipio The Best General of the Roman Republic?


Almost every armchair historian and even most professionals have their own list of favorite or best generals. There are names that often appear, such as the scrappy George Washington, the brilliant Alexander and Erwin Rommel. In ancient military history Hannibal Barca is often placed on a higher pedestal than the man who actually defeated him, Publius Cornelius Scipio. In fact on an open voting and ranking website Thetoptens.com, Hannibal holds a lofty #4 ranking while Scipio can be found in other receiving votes all the way down at #34 at the time of this writing. Not only was Scipio the only general to defeat the great Hannibal, he campaigned for over a decade without suffering a defeat and utilized tactics arguably superior to Hannibal’s in multiple battles fought in hostile territory.

Scipio saw action all over Italy as an officer, learner from his elders but also learning from Hannibal's tactics as well
Scipio saw action all over Italy as an officer, learner from his elders but also learning from Hannibal’s tactics as well

Scipio has an exciting first mention in the history books; in the first engagement between the Romans and Hannibal, the 18 year old Scipio rode in to rescue his father who had been surrounded by a large force of Numidian cavalry. Scipio actually won the Civic Crown for his actions, one of the highest honors possible in Rome. Scipio was not nearly old enough to lead an army but he served as an officer for the crushing defeats of Trebia and Cannae, and may have been one of the few survivors of Trasimene. After Cannae Scipio rocketed up the ranks despite his age as he was known and respected for his bravery and experience through the battles so far and his unwavering patriotism was welcomed in a time when the Roman world was falling apart.

Scipio was elected to lead Roman forces in Iberia, replacing his father and uncle who had been killed after their Iberian mercenaries defected and annihilated the Roman army there. Scipio took over in northeastern Iberia and quickly marched down to take the chief city of Iberia, New Carthage (modern Cartagena).

Though Scipio’s army greatly outnumbered the garrison, the city was surrounded by the sea and a lagoon on three sides and initial land assaults were easily repulsed. Doing some scouting, Scipio discovered that the lagoon could be crossed at certain points and set a small force to scale the lagoon walls while the majority of the army kept the focus on the land gates and the city fell within hours. Scipio led his troops, not recklessly from the front, but near the front lines, urging his men forward and personally acknowledging accomplishments after the battle.

At New Carthage Scipio showed a talent for strategic and tactical command. The city was a major supply depot for Carthaginian Iberia and its capture sent a huge message to the Iberian tribes. In his first major command Scipio ran into a wall and was able to take a step back and find a solution that turned a tough battle into an easy victory. Not only the victory was remarkable either, Scipio marched hundreds of miles through hostile territory, misdirecting the Carthaginian armies in the area to be able to catch the city scarcely defended, a move almost as bold as Hannibal’s Alpine crossing.

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